Nerdette podcast host Greta Johnsen reads a lot of books. This year, while stuck at home during the pandemic, she finished nearly 100.
From self-help for the creatively shy to science fiction about parallel earths to a short story collection touching on government overreach, Johnsen consumed a lot of new literary content this year.
“I spent a lot more time inside,” Johnsen said.
Below are Johnsen’s 10 favorite books from 2020, in descending order. Each is fiction unless noted otherwise.
10. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
A family of four leaves the big city for a quiet vacation in rural New York that’s free from cell phone service and the daily bustle. Then, the owners of their rental home show up late one night in a panic. Blackouts have swept the coast, they say, and a hurricane may be heading their direction.
What follows is what Johnsen calls a “quiet apocalypse novel” that explores how humans carry on with normal life in the midst of unexpected insanity.
“It kind of sneaks up on you,” Johnsen said. “And it’s extremely relevant to how all of us are operating or have been operating this year.”
9. Memorial by Bryan Washington
Benson and Mike are two young gay men living in Houston. Their undefined romantic relationship gets a few more wrinkles when Mike learns his estranged father is on his deathbed. So Mike leaves Benson in their apartment just as Mike’s mother arrives for an extended visit.
Memorial is about Mike and Benson’s relationships with their fathers, their mothers, themselves — and food. It’s also about how people create their own family.
“It switches perspective halfway through,” Johnsen said. “And it’s a really beautiful way of helping you understand what someone else’s point of view is even if initially you find it very frustrating.”
8. The Nine Realms series by Sarah Kozloff
“These books are better than Game of Thrones,” Johnsen said of debut author Sarah Kozloff’s epic fantasy series. Why?
“Because they are complete,” she said. “And they are feminist as f***.”
The novels follow Cerulia, Princess of Weirandale, as she escapes a coup, navigates exile and returns home to fight for her rightful place on the throne.
“Especially for people who are looking for a total escape from reality for several hundred pages, this series is the way to go,” Johnsen said.
7. How To Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy (Non-fiction)
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy calls the self-help genre “oxymoronic.” (“If you can help yourself, you don’t need a book!” he told Nerdette last month.)
But How To Write One Song offers some self-help-style advice for both aspiring songwriters and anyone who wants to scratch a creative itch.
“This book is so much more than instructions on how to write a song,” Johnsen said. “I think it would make a lovely gift to someone who you know has creative inclinations but doesn’t necessarily give themself permission to explore them.”
6. One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London
In One to Watch, Bea Schumacher is a plus-size fashion blogger. When she writes a scathing takedown of a Bachelorette-type TV show, the show’s producers give her a call and ask her to be the show’s next star contestant.
Johnsen says the book is both a lovely summer read and a critical assessment of reality TV tropes.
“I don’t let myself watch reality TV because I’m afraid I would quit my job and let myself do nothing else,” Johnsen said, “but I really enjoy reading reality TV books, apparently.”
5. Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller (Non-fiction)
NPR reporter and former Invisibilia podcast host Lulu Miller tells the true story of taxonomist David Starr Jordan, a man responsible for discovering nearly one-fifth of the world’s fish, whose collection of specimens was destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
But what Miller learns about Jordan’s life starts to transform her own, changing her understanding of history and morality.
“It’s part-memoir, part-reported story,” Johnsen said of Miller’s book.
“So much of it is about celebrating the chaos and imperfections that inherently exist in humanity,” Johnsen said. “And the fact that it’s a celebration is such a nice reprieve from what a lot of us are going through.”
4. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
This one contains a slightly-confusing multiverse premise, so buckle up: There are hundreds of different earths that all include slightly different versions of ourselves. But no one can visit an earth where you already exist, which means the people best equipped for inter-earth exploration are those who are most likely to be dead on the other worlds.
“It ends up being a really interesting parable for privilege,” Johnsen said. “It’s super badass, scrappy sci-fi that I think would work really well even if you think you don’t like science-fiction, because it’s action-packed and fascinating.”
3. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
David Mitchell is the speculative-fiction writer best known for Cloud Atlas, and Johnsen calls his time-bending works “literary magic.”
Utopia Avenue follows the life and times of a British rock band in the psychedelic ’60s, including their meteoric ascent and the turbulence that comes with fame.
“You forget that it’s fiction,” Johnsen said. “The way he’s written it is so beautiful that you want to hear the songs for yourself, but then you remember that you can’t because it’s not real.”
2. The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
Johnsen said that each of the short stories in this collection led her to underline something amazing.
“Some of the big themes are loss and longing and belonging, but it’s also somehow hilarious,” Johnsen said. “So it’s one of those really special books that feels like it’s about capital-I important topics while still just being a great time to read.”
The title story is about what would happen if the government set up a bureau to stop fake news, an Office of Historical Corrections.
“It goes super awry,” Johnsen said. “It’s grim, but there are funny moments. It seems extremely artful.”
1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half begins in rural Louisiana in the 1950s, when two light-skinned Black sisters run away to New Orleans.
But their lives take two very different turns: one moves back home after escaping an abusive relationship with her dark-skinned husband. The other chooses to pass as a white woman. Then, the rest of their lives unfold as they deal with the consequences of their decisions.
“It was kind of the perfect book I think,” Johnsen said. “All the characters are fascinating. The plot is soapy but substantive. I would recommend it to anyone.”
“It’s one of those books that felt really timely when it came out this summer,” she added, “but it’s also always timely.”